No one knows cabins better than Dale Mulfinger of SALA Architects, the “cabinologist” who has designed more than 100 of them and written several books, including his latest, “The Family Cabin” (Taunton Press, $34.95). We chatted with Mulfinger about how cabins promote family bonding, the rise of modern vs. rustic style and the cabin of tomorrow.
Q: We Minnesotans like to think we own cabin culture.
A: We do! Minnesotans and Minneapolitans are special in their love of cabins, even more than Wisconsinites.
Q: Why is that?
A: Maybe it’s having so many lakes and a modicum of wealth — a lot of people can afford a second place. An amazing number of people here have a cabin or connect to a cabin. We’re more cabin culture than anywhere else in the U.S.
Q: You describe cabins as “places of human bonding” where privacy takes a back seat to intimacy. How does cabin design foster that?
A: A lot of it has to do with cooking and eating, making sure everyone can be together — so the person frying the fish can be chatting with someone who’s stoking the fire. You don’t want oversized bedrooms. You don’t want to promote people staying in their rooms, you want them to come out and be working on the puzzle at the table. There’s less focus on bedrooms and baths, and more focus on a communal great room.
Q: How has the cabin changed over the years?
A: The land is worth more money. People building cabins tend to put more into their cabins because they spent more on the land. Another change is that many owners now imagine they might retire to that property. That changes the profile. They need a little more room for their stuff. A cabin used by a family for weekends is focused on bonding space. For a retired couple living there year-round, there’s a little more focus on the bedroom and bathroom.
Q: What’s the most common cabin project that you see?
A: Adding to or altering a cabin that’s been in a family for generations. Often it’s now used all seasons and needs to be winterized. Or now it’s owned by three adult siblings who’ve gotten married and had kids and are trying to figure out a way to share it. If the old cabin has lived its life, maybe you tear it down and rethink it.
Q: What determines whether it’s best to renovate or start from scratch?
A: The structural condition, the foundation is important. It might be charming but never had an ounce of insulation. Is it worth hanging onto for sentimental value? It’s a combination of sentiment and dollars.
Q: What remodeling mistakes do you hate to see?
A: Tacking on an addition that doesn’t fit the character of the original cabin. Sometimes an addition blocks the view of the water or the light, making the cabin darker.
Q: How did you choose cabins to include in your new book?
A: For this publisher, we needed geographic dispersion. I know of many in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but I also needed projects in the Rocky Mountains and in Maine. I have secret methods. I contact Minnesota architectural firms and ask, “What have you done?” I might find enough material to warrant a flight. Then I go to the magazine rack at the drugstore and see if they carry any stories about cabins. I walk to the town library and peruse issues. Then I cold-call the architect or builder. It’s easier in the density of New England than in the Rocky Mountains.
Q: Do you have a favorite?
A: I love them all — and the stories connected to them. I love telling the story about Hod Ludlow, the owner of Ludlow’s Island Resort [on Lake Vermilion]. He was a carpenter, and a guest from South Dakota said: “Build me a cabin. I’ll be back next summer, and I want it done. I want five bedrooms, all facing the water.” So Ludlow designed it like a motel. You have to go outside to get to the kitchen, the living room, the bath. It so endeared the people of this family that it’s still just way it was built, more than 60 years ago.
There’s one in Maine, a historic cabin on the National Register, that was owned by Mary Ellen Chase, a popular novelist in the 1930s. She wrote a book, “Windswept,” and the lead character is the cabin — stories move through it. It was restored to its original character by Robert Knight, an architect friend of mine. I found a copy of the original book.
Q: Why do you love cabins so much?
A: They’re filled with stories, much more so than somebody’s house — the love that carries with them, things that went on there, the way they got built, the casualness that allows us to carve or write children’s heights into a wall. And there’s a belief that it will be handed down. … When you start with that, you’re starting with love already attached. Another thing is that they are on some beautiful land — a forest or river, lake or ocean. It’s really charming where people put these places. They’re sure fun to work on.
Q: More fun than regular homes?
A: Yes, I think they are. People put more of their personality into them. They’re less likely to use the word “resale.” A house in the metropolis, you don’t presume your children will want to live there.
Q: Tell us about your cabin. What do you love about it?
A: It’s on Lake Vermilion, and we own it with another couple, our friends. It’s modest — 1,300 square feet. It’s environmentally sensitive, banked into a northwest hill with southeast exposure. I designed it with the other husband, a retired professor of architecture.
It was an interesting process, to design for four adults, all with strong beliefs. Everyone was allowed at least one veto. I was the cost sheriff. My vetoes were often related to bringing it in on budget. What I love most about it is the beautiful site, with a view out over the lake. It’s great for fishing, and there’s an interesting diversity of trees.
Q: What’s your perfect weekend like up there?
A: I like to putz out in my shop. Fishing, reading, sketching on somebody’s cabin. I cook more there. I make crêpes at the cabin. I can be there alone or with a group. We can comfortably take up to 12 people. There’s a loft for sleeping, and an old log cabin on the property. We can put a few people in bunks in there.
Q: What’s new in cabin design and construction?
A: The culture is starting to seek modern ideas, expressed in modern architecture. A majority are still looking for rustic, but that any are looking for modern is new. We’ve all been impacted by Dwell, Ikea and Design Within Reach. Contemporary dwellings are featured more in advertising. People are interested in the simplicity of it. They don’t want a cluttered life, cluttered with stuff. Modern represents that to them.
Q: Are there new challenges, too?
A: One of the biggest challenges is doing things within a client’s budget. The cost of lumber has gone up, because of the fires in British Columbia and the tariffs on Canadian products. Hurricanes had a big impact on building supplies. Clients come to us with a cost expectation that may be a decade out of sync.
Q: Can prefab construction help control costs?
A: It can be fairly inexpensive to create it in the factory, but then you have to schlep it 300 miles, and use a crane to get it off the truck. Prefab isn’t so accessible out in cabin country. Most of our work is still built by local builders.
Q: What will the cabin of the future be like?
A: The younger generation is more interested in the environment. There will be more cabins that are off-the-grid, with solar panels to power them. Solar is more affordable and accessible than it has been. There will be a lot more focus on the outdoors. People that age are riding bicycles to work. Instead of a car, they’re using mass transit. They’re not so keen on big powerboats.
Q: What distinguishes a Minnesota cabin from a getaway home in another state?
A: It depends on where you live. You could take a structure in Wisconsin, sell it to a Minnesotan, and they would say they were going to the cabin. If you sold the same structure to someone in Milwaukee or farther east, they would say they were going to the cottage. But if you take it to the Adirondacks or upper New England, it’s a camp. Unless it’s on the ocean. Then it’s a cottage. In Louisiana, it’s a camp again. … A term getting used a lot today is lake home, because often it is their home 10 months of the year.
Q: How would you design a low-maintenance cabin for someone who loves the outdoors but doesn’t have time to take care of one?
A: I’d suggest renting. There isn’t any such thing as a low-maintenance cabin. There are mice and bats, and you have to try to keep the well going. Nature wants to reclaim it.